Firmly in the Saddle: Saving Mustangs in Leeds, Alabama.

Babbie Styslinger is saving mustangs and finding herself in the process

Story and photos by Cara Clark

Babbie Styslinger picks up a Western saddle that weighs nearly as much as she does. Slim, blonde, and no-nonsense, she hefts it up and onto a flashy palomino mustang. She then cinches the girth tight, slips a bridle over the mustang’s head, and leads him from the barn. When they emerge from the barn, sunlight sparks on the mustang’s shiny gold coat and shimmers through his white mane and tail, as it does in Babbie’s long blonde ponytail.
          She’s preparing to ride Brody, a mustang that hails from the Antelope Valley Herd Management Area (HMA) in northeastern Nevada, where the valleys, mountains, and canyons are vastly different than the terrain here. As the entrepreneur-turned-wrangler walks out of the barn at Blue Sky Farms in Leeds, there’s a little hitch in her get-along, as a cowboy might say. Walking around the farm and discussing the horses, from time to time, Babbie reaches back to rub her lower back, a not-so-subtle reminder that she recently got bucked off hard when one of the mustangs blew up during a training ride.
          So why put herself at risk with these unpredictable creatures? Babbie is giving back, and she’s doing it in the most hands-on way with wild horses. Most often she works with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the government agency responsible for maintaining the public lands where the horses run free.


          It all started when she learned about four mustangs in a Navajo kill pen in 2017—horses that had been rounded up on Navajo lands that were being sold because the Native Americans couldn’t afford to feed them. It was the end of the line for those young horses unless someone intervened. And Babbie was all-in, committing to taking them on and breaking ground on a barn that would become a mustang training facility.
          Babbie, who rode when she was young, attended a year of equestrian school in her 20s. “I was bartending and saw an ad for an equestrian school, which had a program to help students get equine jobs when they graduated,” Babbie says. “I called Dad and asked if my college fund would pay for it, and he happily said yes. After school I went to work on a cutting horse ranch, and the grin set in that would stay for years.” 
          Babbie went to work breaking in the young cutting horses and teaching them to follow cues for cattle herding. It was a time of healing and growth, a sort of working sojourn that also fully developed her horsemanship skills. “It was a time in my life when I needed it,” Babbie says. “I learned if you can handle a 1,200-pound horse, you can handle anything that comes your way.”


          Thirty years later, seeing those horses and knowing their fate, Babbie decided she’d found her mission. Between horse training and raising a family, Babbie built two successful businesses, At Home and Three Sheets, in Homewood. During those years, there wasn’t much time for other diversions. But life was good, and her drive to succeed as an entrepreneur paid off. “I loved my business, but I reached the point in my life when it was time for me to give back,” Babbie says. “I’m not really a candy striper kind of girl. I thought about what got me through life was horses. The bond between a horse and child is an incredible thing, and I had felt that when I was younger.”
          Babbie saw a way to save equine lives and pay the gift forward. “Mustangs have a strong and innate sense of family,” Babbie explains. “When you separate one from the group, you can become their herd.”
              There’s no population control among mustang herds, and ranchers don’t like the herds on their land. The BLM holds internet adoptions regularly throughout the year, but there’s a dearth of homes for untrained horses. Adoptable horses are classified as gentled and ungentled. Gentled means they know the basics—wear a halter, lead, walk onto and off a horse trailer, and pick up all four feet for a handler


              The Mustang Heritage Foundation created the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) to bridge the gap between the public and excess wild horses held in off-range corrals. Babbie is a qualified TIP trainer and can transform the horses from wild to gentled by meeting the criteria and find them homes. Adopters can purchase TIP trained horses for a nominal fee of $125 if they meet the BLM requirements.
              At Babbie’s boot camp, she and her barn manager, Brandy Jewell, also a TIP trainer, teach the horses the basics of accepting human touch, wearing a halter, and graduating to riding. They also teach them that strange objects around them don’t have to represent threats using desensitization techniques.
              Babbie leads the way to a vast, covered arena with sand footing. At one end, metal farm panels have been arranged into holding pens to separate and work the new mustangs that are learning to accept humans and life in an alien environment. At the other end, a larger part of the arena has been set aside for riding and working formerly wild horses, now equine companions. In the section between, there is an assortment of seemingly random items that are a crucial part of the learning process, from a child’s plastic swimming pool to wooden blocks and tires to a baby mattress and giant foam noodles.


              When Babbie talks mustangs, she speaks of HMAs such as Antelope Valley, Owyhee, Adobe Town, Salt Wells Creek—just some of the 177 HMAs the BLM oversees in 10 Western states. Not only does climate and terrain vastly vary among these domains, but the horses themselves are physically different and wired differently mentally.
              Body language is a critical part in breaking through with mustangs whose limited experience with humans has not been the best. If you look at it from their perspective, they’ve been run down, kidnapped, and taken away from all they’ve known. They’ve lost their freedom and find themselves in an alien environment with big machines and strange bipeds that want to constantly touch them.
          Babbie uses a straightforward approach with the horses that emulates how she takes on her own life. She begins with face-to-face, direct contact. Her goal is to have them stand in front of her with all attention on her, just for seconds at first. When they’ve accepted that, she moves away. The message: Now that didn’t hurt, did it? “Mustangs want to know who the leader is, and once leadership is established, you’re good,” Babbie says.


              Working with a particularly tough case, Nikki, a bay mare whose mane is knotted from years of freedom, Babbie faces the mare. In turn, Nikki splays her front feet and watches warily as she considers her flight options. But the beginnings of trust are there, so Babbie is able to slowly move to the mare and rub her face. She can then move to the side and rub along her neck where she’s been tattooed with the BLM freeze—the equivalent of a social security number indicating age and origin.
              Babbie believes in her gentle, consistent training method, some learned through trial and error and some from other trainers, including famous wild horse trainer Joe Hughes, who works with Australia’s brumbies. “The first day approach is all about the face,” Babbie says. “I want her to look at me, and I do it in a confined space so she can’t run away from me. I want her to look at me – one, two, three, four—then I’m out. You establish that you’re not a threat that way.”
              The relationship builds from there. The challenge is to get Nikki, not quite five years old, in a halter—not with brute force but with baby steps and trust. All of the horses move at different paces. Some are more willing to accept human contact and its benefits—shelter, water, food—necessities often hard to come by in the areas they range. They accept touch, haltering, leading, and even loading in as little as a day. Others, like Nikki, move in a one step forward and two back scenario. But Babbie and Brandy keep taking those forward steps.


              People refer to the two trainers as Yin and Yang—complementing one another with their training styles and shared mission. When the two met, Brandy was looking for a part-time job to add to her career as an advanced veterinary technician. The barn was under construction, and the first set of mustangs was arriving when she serendipitously found her dream job—leaving a secure career for Babbie’s start-up charity. Once she took the leap of faith, she knew she had found her calling. “Working with the mustangs is so rewarding,” she says. “It’s like any relationship—trust and communication are the keys. Once they know they can trust you, they give you 150 percent. And each horse is different. What works for one horse doesn’t work for another. Sometimes we have to dig deep in our tool box to find out what a horse needs.”
              Babbie has now established herself in the horse world, with her name showing up on Facebook pages about mustangs—a sure indication that she’s doing something right. “People I’ve never met are using my name,” Babbie says. “I’ve gotten a reputation for doing good work and for being a sucker.”      


              The sucker part, she realized, when a woman brought a mustang she couldn’t handle to an event in Georgia and couldn’t even get the mare off the trailer. The violent snorting from inside the trailer kept everyone away, and Babbie was asked as a favor to take the horse on. “Nobody would even go look at the horse,” Babbie says. “She was snorting and a real dink (not a looker). I couldn’t say no. She came home with us, and we had her done in three days. We named her Snorty because she had the loudest snort I’ve ever heard.”
              Babbie often falls hard for horses. She fell for Ace, a red dun with a big personality who ambles around the property as if he owns it. Ace came in November 2018, and his athleticism and willing nature won her over. It’s difficult to describe connection, but Babbie and Brandy see it often among humans and mustangs who inexplicably, but instantly click. Babbie’s favorite horse to ride might be Bay Bay, an athletic mare, hanging out in a stall with a content expression. “Anybody would buy Bay Bay,” Babbie says of the horse that came in late December 2018. “I enjoy her and am not ready to let her go.”


              And then there’s Lola, with a gentle soul, uniquely suited to therapy work. Babbie recently hosted visitors from the Exceptional Foundation, and Lola—wild upon arrival in June 2018—placidly welcomed the attention and, in turn, touched human hearts. “I strongly believe in horse therapy,” Babbie says. One child at the barn who was going through a rough time at home was comforted by Lola’s touch. “He stood with his back to me and cried,” she says. “Lola has affected several people. I know that’s her role. I’ve never seen a horse quite like her.”
          Babbie’s competitive nature makes her a great curator—in her businesses she curated furnishings and finery. Now she selects and nurtures mustangs. “I think about what I’m doing, and I think I need to calm my life down and have more fun,” Babbie says. “But that’s not my personality. When I started my business, I was 150 percent into it. I thought about it day and night. This is my new challenge.”


              “I’m competitive, and I want to be the best I can be,” Babbie continues. “I want my store to be the best, and I want my horses to be the best. I like to do things that I’m good at. You’ll never catch me on the tennis court. Golf makes me as nervous as a cat. Here, I have to let everything go. When I’m working with Nikki, when I’m petting her, she’s tough. I can’t think about anything else at that time. When you sense her relax, you know she is reading your energy and responding.”
              Babbie’s commitment to take the horses out of holding and get them into happy homes is clear. “It seems like I’m out there pushing it all the time,” Babbie says. “My husband asked me if it was possible for me to attend any event or dinner and not talk about mustangs. I’ve tried, but it always comes up somehow.”
              When the horses are TIP trained and ready for new homes or fully trained and ready for a rider, she advertises them on her own social media or mustang sites. She’s choosy, too, about who gets to share their lives with one of her horses.


              Babbie has 22 horses on the property now and has trained and placed 16 in the past two years. She goes through a list of names—Leo, Gunny, Ty, Peaches—of those who have moved on from Blue Sky, and it’s easy to see that the hard part wasn’t the tough times when she hit the ground hard after being launched from the saddle. The hardest part is saying goodbye. “We typically have a better time getting out the horses Brandy works with,” Babbie says of her sentiment. “If I work them, they sometimes never leave.”
              Together, Babbie and Brandy have built a system that works. And one of the keys is that it’s ego-free. “We watch each other with the mustangs, and sometimes we see something that can help,” Brandy says. “We bounce ideas off each other. We’re always looking to learn, and each horse that comes in teaches us something.”
              They assess which of the horses on the 56-acre farm is ready to ride and which they can move out quickly to make room for another one. If one of them isn’t clicking with the horse they’re working, the other steps in. Whatever works for the mustang is a victory. “We realize right now we’ve got six in the hole and 40,000 more out there,” Babbie says. “This is what’s important to me, and I know I’m making a difference. I’m going to have a sanctuary one day for the horses that just need a refuge. When you’re 58 years old, it gets difficult to say, ‘one day,’ but, by golly I’ll do it.”

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